Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Delicate Bias

"There are divergences of humor that cannot be reconciled." (William Carlos Williams)

I generally approach the Tim Hunt affair as a game played on what Rosmarie Waldrop called "the lawn of excluded middle", a space of ambiguity not governed too much by the "venerable old law of logic" it puns. Nabokov said that "a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science", and, to my mind, following the story of Tim Hunt's "trouble with girls" is increasingly like following the plot of a novel. Those who still continue to roll their eyes at my interest in it, don't, I think, really understand the pleasure of this kind of exploration, the delight one can take in understanding the details.

Nor do they understand, I think, the ethical imperative of taking a detailed interest in the fall (and possible rise) of a man you have intentionally humiliated. Anyone who participated in the public shaming of Tim Hunt, should, out of decency, occasionally revisit the story and ask, What did finally happen to Sir Tim? Did he get the punishment he deserved? Was he treated fairly, in the long run? It is to that end that I'm applying my intuition and my precision.

Waldrop tells us that "the four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of excluded middle where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone." It's this "full maturity" of the meaning of Hunt's improvised remarks that I am after and that I believe his public shaming entirely neglected. Connie St Louis hastily tweeted her misunderstanding of his remarks. Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky rashly lent her their support. But no one had really heard what he actually said, it seems, and were only hurt by it in so far as they didn't understand him.

A recent example on Twitter reveals the humorless logic of his accusers. When KOFWST made their "final statement" strongly censuring "foreign commentators" for their "serious distortions" of events, Deborah Blum of course promoted it with a tweet. Retweeting Blum, Bill Hooker commented, "Right. So. All you shitweasels who lied and twisted the story and spread disinformation can EAT A BAG OF DICKS," which Blum, in turn, interpreted as directed at her, retweeting with the note, "Another classy supporter of #tim hunt speaks up." But Hooker, it turns out, was merely paraphrasing KOFWST and was therefore acting as "another classy" attacker of Tim Hunt, and one of Deborah Blum's many classy supporters. (People who call Tim Hunt a "rat fucking bastard", for example.) The wonderful irony of this is that the whole affair, of course, begins with Blum misunderstanding Hunt's improvised, lighheartedly supportive remarks about women as an "ingrained" sexist joke. It's pretty clear, now, how the misunderstanding arose.

As I was thinking about this, I happened to be flipping through William Carlos Williams' Improvisations and found the following paragraph.

There are divergences of humor that cannot be reconciled. A young woman of much natural grace of manner and very apt at a certain color of lie is desirous of winning the good graces of one only slightly her elder but nothing comes of her exertions. Instead of yielding to a superficial advantage she finally gives up the task and continues in her own delicate bias of peculiar and beautiful design much to the secret delight of the onlooker who is thus regaled by the spectacle of two exquisite and divergent natures playing one against the other. (XXV, 2)

It's not of course entirely clear what is going on here. But it seems to me that Blum would prefer to live in a world in which such situations were entirely done away with. After all, someone could get hurt, right? She probably wants a world in which not even our poets are allowed to speak of young, desirous women who are "apt at a certain color of lie". Such a "disparaging", as KOFWST might put it, tone must never go un-policed, if you will. In Blum's utopia the lawn of excluded middle is the scorched earth of political correctness. There are no broken windows here. No ambiguous gestures. No jokes.

In promoting KOFWST's "final statement", I think Deborah Blum is trying to exploit what will turn out to be a superficial advantage. As did Connie St Louis's original tweet. This "foreign commentator", in any case, intends to keep talking. In what Nabokov calls "the long run", working with precision and intuition, I think we'll one day be able to actually imagine what happened. It takes time, as Waldrop reminds us. We have to pick this story off the bone, morsel by morsel. It's delicate work. I do it for the simple pleasure it affords. I will make no secret of the delight I take in watching the spectacle.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Note on KOFWST and Tim Hunt

[This post is occasioned by the Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations's new statement about the Tim Hunt affair.]

Back in July, when I was first writing about Tim Hunt, I reached out to KOFWST for comment about their puzzling behavior. I was not able to get them to go on record, but I did manage to find a woman scientist who had attended the luncheon and was familiar with the inner workings of KOFWST. On condition of anonymity, she told me that the public scandal first became known to KOFWST on the last day of the conference. Koreans, she told me, are generally polite and courteous and tend not to complain or blame someone openly, especially one of their guests. My sense was that they would have preferred not to embarrass Tim Hunt but felt unable to ignore the issue once it had become public.

As I said back then, I think they handled the matter rather badly. And the latest statement they've issued doesn't improve my opinion of the organization. Like Connie St Louis and Deborah Blum, who were representatives of WFSJ and WCSJ respectively, I think Hee Young Paik, as the president of KOFWST, went public with concerns that should have been taken to Sir Tim, their guest, in private first.* As in the case of St Louis' tweet, it is easy to imagine a much more dignified response from KOFWST.

After contacting him, and sharing with him their embarrassment over the unfortunate coverage of his remarks, KOFWST could have accepted his apology and issued a simple press release:

KOFWST has been in contact with Sir Tim, who has expressed his deep regrets over the way his remarks were interpreted. He assures us that he meant no offense and has offered a complete apology for his own part in the affair, which KOFWST is happy to accept. We are satisfied that his intention was to praise the many accomplishments of women in science, of which he has been a lifelong supporter, and we consider the matter closed.

Maybe a PR person could find an even better way of putting it, but something like this would, to my mind, be more fitting than the baroque two-page jeremiad of a "call for apology" that they published "on behalf of all women scientists in Korea and the world" after receiving Hunt's gracious and contrite apology.

It showed very little of that famous Korean politeness and courtesy. That is why I've always suspected that KOFWST's intervention was instigated by either St Louis or Blum, who, at the time, needed a more "official" statement of outrage than their own (already disintegrating) perception of what had happened at the luncheon.

As I read their "final" statement, KOFWST almost denies this, but only almost. They could have denied any contact with St Louis and Blum, but instead confine themselves to a somewhat guarded denial "that KOFWST’s request to Sir Hunt was influenced by foreign journalists." (I.e., maybe they talked to them, but they didn't let them "influence" their course of action.) Somewhat weirdly, KOFWST thinks that "such allegations ignore undeniable facts and evidence and demonstrate a lack of regard for KOFWST’s autonomy and integrity." It would be more accurate to say that, while there is perhaps little evidence to prove it, many undeniable facts do in fact suggest it, and it of course calls KOFWST's autonomy and integrity into question. That is, [on the face of it,] they have something to answer for.

Like I say, for me, their behavior was suspect from the moment they publicly entered the fray. It seemed ill-tempered and out of proportion. Also, it's not the proper role of a sponsor. They should have taken their concerns, not to Tim Hunt, a guest of the conference and the luncheon, but to WCSJ, the host that had invited him [to the conference] and, presumably, also had invited him to speak [at the luncheon]. Like any sponsor, their only "pull" was the funding they had presumably contributed. The embarrassment wasn't really on them, but on the conference. They needlessly embarrassed both themselves and Sir Tim and the only reason I can imagine is that they were doing St Louis and/or Blum a favor. It certainly did help their "journalistic" case, at least in the short term.

On a personal note, let me say that if KOFWST interprets this post as a defiance of their "warning" to "foreign commentators", so be it. Just as I found their original demand for an apology from Tim Hunt distasteful, I find this statement of their "official and final position" pompous and absurd. They've got questions to answer, and people should be free to draw whatever conclusions help to make sense of their rather bizarre antics.

They're not the only ones who have questions to answer. I've said this many times before, but we STILL have not heard from WCSJ or WFSJ. We've been waiting for a long time.

*Update (7/12/15): Jane Carnall is puzzled by this criticism. Didn't KOFWST precisely contact Sir Tim by private email first and only afterwards publish his apology along with their request for it? I'm not privy to the correspondence itself, but as I understand it, the "call for apology" was sent to Hunt, including the 24 hour deadline stated in the version that was subsequently made public. If I had received such a mail I would not have seen it as an attempt to resolve the issue privately with a view to making a public statement that saved face on both sides (of the kind I propose in this post). Rather, it seems very clearly to contain the implicit threat that if an apology is not forthcoming, that fact, along with the call, would be released to the press. I may have hoped that my apology would be published without that jeremiad enumerating the outraged misunderstanding that occasioned the whole thing, but when it did all get out, I don't think I'd have been surprised. In any case, I don't see the approach that KOFWST took as an especially "private" one.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Brief History of Tim's Trouble with Girls

(Some texts are written mainly to make their titles possible. This is arguably one of them. It is an extract from a longer piece—perhaps one day a book—that I'm writing about or around the Tim Hunt affair. But I post it now with a specific purpose. I imagine it expresses some "casual" or "ingrained" views about gender, perhaps even about women. These are, of course, wholly my own, and neither those of Hawking nor Hunt. My point is that if these were their views they would, in my opinion, have nothing to be ashamed of. Nor am I at all ashamed of the views I express here. I am, however, willing to discuss them seriously with Dan Waddell and* Philip Moriarty. If they find that my position is not offensive, we can go on to the next step, namely, to attempt to persuade them that Hunt may well have meant nothing more than I'm suggesting here. If they find this way of talking about the opposite sex "offensive" and "damaging", we can take the discussion there. A world in which I should not say these things for fear of hurting people strikes me as a very frail one. As I've said before, I hope Hamlet wasn't right about the name of frailty.)

In early October of 2015, the answers to an “Ask Me Anything” session at Reddit with Stephen Hawking were made public. The questions and answers focused mainly on the the prospects and dangers of artificial intelligence—an issue that Hawking has been making a great deal of lately—but one answer of a more personal nature found itself making headlines.

“What mystery do you find most intriguing,” he was asked, “and why?” He offered a one-word answer: “Women,” and then elaborated: “My PA reminds me that although I have a PhD in physics, women should remain a mystery.”

The reaction on social media was not, if you will, a titter, but, if I may, a shudder. Reporting the remark on her Washington Post blog, Rachel Feltman offered the following note: “Ugh, Hawking, really? No. Women aren’t a mystery, we’re just people.” Similar sentiments were expressed elsewhere. Tweeting Feltman’s post to her 30,000+ followers, Katie Mack, who describes herself as an “astrophysicist [and] occasional freelance science writer,” explained her dismay at Hawking’s answer. “It’ll be great,” she said, “when it’s no longer a cute joke for prominent male scientists to pretend women are alien creatures.” That is, she interpreted his remark as a sexist joke.

Mack and Feltman, it seems, could not read Hawking's remark as expressing a sentiment that could also be shared by women, and here just happened to be expressed by a man. Hawking could have said, “The opposite sex,” but that would have been a bit less pithy, if perfectly gender neutral. Moreover, it seems pretty clear that he meant mainly his attraction to the opposite sex, or, still more neutrally, the attraction between sexes. The most intriguing mystery in the universe, for many men and women, is the profound importance and difficulty of dealing with sexual attraction—or what in polite company is called romance. That, surely, is mainly what he was saying.

Indeed, the lack of charity among those who chose to take offense at what he said is really quite remarkable. Here is a physicist whose passion is to understand the very universe that, one might argue, has undertaken humiliate him in the most thorough way imaginable; by striking him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, it has taken away his ability to control all but a few muscles in his body. Even under this extreme privation, he has the generosity to acknowledge the mystery of the very process that brought him, bodily, into being, through an act that he now presumably enjoys, if at all, only with the greatest of difficulty, and under conditions of enormous compassion. That he would find the kindness, and, let’s suppose, the occasional cruelty, of women “mysterious” under these conditions does not surprise me. That some women would have him keep this sense of wonder to himself, however, is mysterious indeed.

The mild reprimands by feminists like Mack and Feltman were ultimately all that Hawking had to suffer for his honesty about the limits of his understanding. But he was in an important sense lucky to get off so easy. The previous four months had clearly demonstrated how dangerous it can be for scientists when feminist “science writers” on the internet don’t share either their sense of humor or their sense of wonder. I am, of course, thinking of the case of Sir Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate who was publicly humiliated for remarks he made at an informal luncheon in Seoul in June.

When discussing this case, it has become customary to stipulate that he did, in fact, speak at least 39 words about his "trouble with girls". Most of that trouble was explicitly mutual: he falls in love with them and they fall in love with him. (I know that kind of trouble; and it is, indeed, all that.) He then said something that made a number of people shudder or cringe or perhaps gag or otherwise upset them. He said that, when you criticize them, these women cry. To put a button on it, he said that perhaps, given this trouble, we should consider separate labs for men and women (he may have said "boys and girls"; it is his wont.) That last was, of course, a joke, as reasonable people on both sides have come to acknowledge.

I think the story I just told about Sir Tim's remarks is uncontroversial on points of fact. The controversy is about the consequences of his remarks. In the first instance, it is about about how "damaging" the remarks were. I.e., there is some disagreement about how much damage Tim Hunt caused by saying what he said to about a hundred people in Seoul after lunch. After that, it's a bit of a mess. Hunt's remarks were tweeted and then reported in the media as though he seriously suggested segregated labs, and with the strange spin that he'd said that he found women in the lab sexually distracting (i.e., #distractinglysexy; this early piece in the Guardian by Rebecca Ratcliffe is indicative of the framing that caused the outrage.) Many people, myself included, also initially thought he was saying all or most women cry simply when criticized, not when someone they are in love with, or who is in love with them, criticizes them. We were relieved to find out he was joking, and then everything began to make sense.

As I see it, Sir Tim was trying to talk about gender equality to women as though they were his equals. He was trying to find a comical angle on the serious problem that the phrase "women in science" unfortunately sometimes denotes. Under the circumstances, he was no doubt painfully conscious of being a man. He thought he'd found just the way to put it. (For the record, I think it is a very good way to put it.) The trouble with girls, friends, whether in a lab or anywhere else ... and, yes, yes, damn blast yer intellex, only from a heterosexual man's point of view, of course ... The trouble with girls is love.

*Update: Dan Waddell and I have agreed to stop debating this topic. Apparently, my decision to address myself to him alone, and not Paula Higgins as well, who had not engaged with me personally on this matter, and who Dan had told me he was "consulting" with to see whether, and how, she wanted to engage, was taken as an attempt to "marginalize" his specifically female co-author. (Please note that we're talking about ideas now, not texts, and I don't like to engage with people in teams if they've addressed themselves to me directly.) Anyway, Dan has respectfully declined my challenge, as far as I can tell for the reasons I just stated. I personally think it's a ridiculous excuse not to discuss these issues, and of course (it shouldn't be necessary to say this) reject his accusation that it had anything to do with Paula Higgins' gender.

Friday, November 20, 2015

On the Fear of Being Hunted, part 2

[Read Part 1.]
[Read Phil Moriarty's response.]

One thing that Tim Hunt's critics and supporters, and even Tim Hunt himself, can at times agree on is that telling a room full of science journalists in Seoul about his "trouble with girls" was a stupid thing to do. What I've been calling "the fear of being Tim Hunt", then, is, in part, the fear of being severely punished for a momentary lapse of reason. After all, many of his critics say that if we grant that his toast was, as Hunt himself[Mary Collins] put it, "an unbelievably stupid thing to say," then surely he had whatever he got coming to him.

I've recently had a couple of exchanges on (and one off) Twitter with Phil Moriarty, who has come down pretty hard on Hunt since this controversy began. I have found Phil to be intelligent and thoughtful (that's not a redundant thing to say) and I must say that, now that I know him a little better, I don't understand how he ended up on the "wrong" side of the Tim Hunt issue. So, at a deeper level, the fear of being Tim Hunt is the fear of having otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people come down on you for being, for a moment, less intelligent and thoughtful than you normally are. In a sense, it's the fear of letting your guard down.

I put it this way for a reason. In one of his earlier posts, Phil points out that the Tim Hunt that was savagely denounced in the media was not the Tim Hunt that he thought he knew. Phil had

met Prof. Hunt and attended meetings with him (and others) in the context of challenging the damaging focus of the research councils on near-term and near-market socioeconomic impact in science funding. In those discussions, Tim came across as a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science. I found him to be personable, likable, and, indeed, often inspiring, as this BBC4 programme from a few years back amply demonstrates.

But for some reason, and for a reason I simply don't understand, Phil chose not to give Hunt the benefit of the doubt. (Indeed, even in this very paragraph Phil seems to identify a possible reason that Hunt might have some powerful enemies who'd like to take him down a notch.) Instead, he simply sets aside this powerful "prior" (as statisticians put it) and concludes that "what [Hunt] said in that conference in Seoul was beyond dumb. It was crass. And immensely damaging."

Now, what Hunt was reported to have said was indeed crass and beyond dumb. Reportedly, i.e., according to Connie St Louis' soundly discredited but still not retracted report, Hunt seriously suggested that women are such an emotional nuisance in the lab that it would be best if they were given a lab of their own. (I like that play on Virginia Woolf's famous title. Remind me to pick it up some other time.) But when Hunt "admitted" that it was "stupid" to say it, he didn't mean that he had actually said that. He meant that it was stupid to say something that could be misconstrued that badly in front of an audience that, it seems, has a powerful incentive to thus misconstrue it.

In fact, I would put the point a bit more sharply against the science journalists. It was stupid to think that he was in a room full of intelligent and thoughtful people who would be able to understand [and appreciate] the "reductio ad absurdum" (25:27ff) with which he, jokingly, concluded his lighthearted reminiscences about the joys (and inevitable pains) of working with intelligent women. After all, he was in a roomful of people who had just elected the likes of Connie St "if it bleeds it leads" Louis to the executive board of their global professional federation. This same Connie St Louis still sits on the board of her national professional association, which continues to defend her work on the "highest standards" of British science writing.

Speaking candidly to that lot was, indeed, an unbelievably stupid thing to do. I'm sure he won't do it again. (Nor will I.) In fact, I suspect it was just naive and ignorant, i.e., not so much ill-advised as ill-informed. He didn't know who he was dealing with.

But this post isn't really about the work of a hack like Connie St Louis. The fear of being "Hunted" is the fear that sincere and intelligent people, people who've met you, people who know you in person to be "a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science", will suddenly for political reasons turn against you on the counsel of an execrably written tweet. What I don't understand, I guess, is how someone like Phil Moriarty could be turned against Hunt so efficiently, so effectively, so viciously. Why didn't Phil trust his experience-based personal opinion of Hunt and assume that the quote had been taken out of context and distorted?

That, then, is what this post is intended to probe. What happened, Phil?

[Read Phil Moriarty's response.]

Monday, November 16, 2015

On the Fear of Being Hunted, part 1

One arguably constructive use of public shaming is as a deterrent against bad behavior. If there is a substantial risk of being exposed as a sexual harasser in a given professional environment, and the consequences of exposure are severe for your reputation and career, then you have a powerful incentive not to sexually harass your colleagues. Every case of public shaming in your profession, then, would remind you that if you behave similarly, you risk similar consequences. The fear of exposure can come either because your profession has a strong tradition of internal whistle blowing, or because it is under the watchful eye of the public media, journalism in particular. Harassers live in what may be called just fear of exposure by these means. I.e., their fear of being shamed is a public good.

It is easy to imagine a professional environment that is deficient in "justice" on this score. Real and potential sexual harassers may never witness any notably public shaming of their "colleagues" (i.e., their fellow harassers in the profession.) Indeed, they may regularly hear of, or even witness, sexual harassment that goes unpunished, and this may embolden them to begin or continue harassment campaigns of their own. They may even be inspired by their peers and mentors as they listen to their heroic tales of conquest and the inefficacy of the machinery of justice to hold them to account. The current debates about "tolerance" on college campuses seems to turn on this kind of charge against the environment.

But there's also another kind of injustice. I'm thinking of the miscarriage of justice in which innocent colleagues are shamed and ridiculed for acts they did not carry out, or views they do not hold. I have previously referred to this as the danger of "overdiagnosing" sexism in a particular profession. (I'm purposely keeping open, for now, which profession we're talking about, on the assumption that you will grant that some professions are more sexist than others and that one can therefore very well be wrong about the extent of the problem in any particular environment.) If people who have no inclination to sexually harass their colleagues regularly witness the public shaming of people they know not to have done anything wrong, or their humiliation is based on evidence that is, on the face it, inadequate to credibly support a charge, then they may begin to fear such shaming themselves. The fear of a non-harasser of being publicly shamed for harassment is not, let us agree, a public good.

If the consequences of a just culture of publicly shaming is to discourage harassers from engaging in the dirty business, and the consequence of an unjust culture—one that lacks a sufficient sense (and practice) of shame—is to embolden people to carry on with their bad behaviour, then the consequences of an overly zealous culture of shaming is to discourage everyone, good and bad alike, from being open about their thoughts and feelings.

This year, we were offered almost a controlled experiment in public shaming. On June 8, 2015, Tim Hunt was publicly called out for allegedly sexist remarks he made at a luncheon in Seoul. (I recommend Jonathan Foreman's version of the events, though I'm obliged to note that it remains "controversial".) In early October, the results of a sexual harassment inquiry spanning over a decade of Geoff Marcy's career became public knowledge. (Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed, as far as I can tell, deserves the credit for breaking the story.) Since the theme of both cases is sexism, it's not surprising that they've been brought together in media commentary, but the difference between the two cases is in fact rather striking.

While I'm personally convinced, after having looked at the case very closely, that Tim Hunt is entirely innocent of the charges that were brought against him, i.e., I believe that Tim Hunt has nothing to be ashamed of (however much he may regret the "stupidity" of his remarks*), I have not yet looked closely enough at the Geoff Marcy case to have an independent opinion of whether he is indeed guilty. For the purposes of this post, however, the actual guilt or innocence of either man is not important. The question is what sort of example his shaming sets for others.

Consider the difference between what we can called "the fear of being Hunt" and "the fear of being Marcy". What does it mean to be "Hunted"; what does it mean to be "Marcied"?

The example of Geoff Marcy tells us that even a long and very successful career in science does not protect you from facing the consequences of an equally long career as a sexual harasser. Eventually, you will be brought down by both the academic institutions that supported you and the professional journalists that promoted your work. No matter how many planets you have discovered you will be remembered by most people for creepily groping your students at receptions. You will probably even have lost your shot at an otherwise well-deserved Nobel prize.

The example that Tim Hunt sets is quite different. If anyone takes the time to find out who Tim Hunt is, what he stands for, and what, as far as we can tell, he said in Seoul that fateful day, the lesson is only as clear as it is disturbing. It is that no matter how successful you are as a scientist, your Nobel Prize and your knighthood well-earned, and no matter how decently you treat your colleagues, men and women alike, a few minutes of carelessness, while speaking informally to an audience during a luncheon, can seriously damage your reputation. You may be dis-invited from future speaking engagements (in some cases due to threats of violence) and you may find yourself having to stay away from some of your favorite gatherings. You may even lose academic posts and appointments, in some cases explicitly couched in terms of revoking the "honour" that those positions imply.

Interestingly, the fear of being Geoff Marcy does not include the fear of being "hung out to dry" (as Tim Hunt put it) by your academic institutions or your conference hosts, nor even of being unjustly maligned by shoddy, yellow journalism. When you look at the Marcy case, you see some serious institutional protections and some thorough, well-supported journalism. Some would argue Marcy was overly protected, of course, but it is precisely therefore that he constitutes such a strong example. Even when you think you're getting away with it, you are putting your career at risk.

The fear of being Hunted, however, is the fear of being completely abandoned by your academic institutions at a time when the shoddiest of journalism (an almost illiterate tweet and a couple of obviously agenda-driven blog posts) is inciting a predictably irrational Twitter mob against you. Moreover, it's the fear of being led into a trap. The very journalists who called Tim Hunt out also served on the organizing bodies of the conference that invited him.

One of the events that Tim Hunt was forced to forego his customary participation in was the Lindau Meeting of Nobel laureates. At a panel on "Communication Overkill", his case was discussed with some concern (see this video at 1:16:00 to 1:24:00). Torsten Wiesel raised the question of whether the community should not have done more to stand by Hunt in his time of trouble. Brian Schmidt rightly pointed out that the only protections scientists really have against the irrational shaming of the Internet are strong, real-world institutions that "stick by their values"*. There is, indeed, nothing one can do about the rage of the mob except to seek shelter from the storm until it blows over—that requires institutions. Adam Smith followed up on this by saying, again to my mind rightly, that the Tim Hunt case "highlights the dangerous environment that everyone inhabits" and that it's not surprising, given what happened, that scientists would be "discouraged from getting out in front of the press and saying anything at all."

Tim Hunt didn't realize that, by attending the World Conference of Science Journalists, he had stepped outside of the civilized discourse of scientists that is established in places like Lindau. (If he could have chosen to go to Lindau instead of Seoul, I don't think there's any doubt where he would have preferred to be.) He had stepped into the "dangerous environment" of those soi-disant journalists we call "science writers". They like to "keep it simple, stupid"; they like stories that bleed. They tweet first and ask questions later. They hunt. In packs.

[Read Part 2]

*I will pick up on these points in part two. Schmidt and Wiesel, like Hunt, acknowledge that the remarks were ill-considered, but this does not imply, as Hunt's remaining critics like to suggest, that they were shameful.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

(Re)Framing Tim Hunt

The ongoing vilification of Tim Hunt is a sad sign of the state of our sciences, our politics, and our public discourse about them. By "ongoing vilification" I mean the way in which he is confidently presented as an example of the problem of sexism in science. The most notable recent examples are Sarah Zhang's "A New Twist in the Fight Against Sexism in Science" in Wired and Mark Strauss's "Nobel Laureates Who Were Not Always Noble" in National Geographic. In both pieces, Tim Hunt is presented as part of the problem—in the latter in very strong terms, taking his place in a "rogues' gallery" of "racists, frauds, and misogynists". As far as I can tell, however, even those who support this basic narrative online (people like Dan Waddell and Paula Higgins) don't really claim to have any evidence that he's a sexist. Some say it doesn't even matter whether or not he's a sexist, only that he "said something sexist". This is strange to me, and, like I say, saddening.

To see what I mean, imagine that Tim Hunt's remarks had been misconstrued, not as an expression of sexist views (that he doesn't hold), but as an admission of sexual misconduct (that he doesn't, of course, engage in). Suppose the story had been, "Nobel Laureate admits trying to seduce women in his lab and, when they refuse his advances, verbally abusing them until they break down in tears." Suppose it was this sort of thing that was being said in Wired (where he was in fact paired with Geoff Marcy) and National Geographic. (Writing in the LATimes Robin Abcarian suggests shooting Hunt into space locked in a capsule with Marcy.) I would hope that everyone who's been writing about this, on both sides, would agree that such a characterization, and such a legacy, would be unfair to Hunt.

To defend Hunt from such an accusation would not be tantamount to trivializing the problem of sexual harassment, it would be the simple pursuit of justice for a falsely accused man. Tim Hunt, after all, has never actually been accused by anyone of sexual harassing them. If he had we can be pretty sure that it would have come out by now. But what those who use his name to stand for "casual sexism" forget is that he has also never been accused of sexual discrimination or even of casual sexism before or since his toast to women scientists in Seoul. Just as no women have come forward to tell stories about how he came on to them inappropriately in a lab or how his brutal criticism (born, let's say, of his disprized love) made them cry, no woman has ever suggested that he passed her over for promotion because she was female, or that he treated the men in his labs with greater respect than her. In other words, the image of Tim Hunt as even a casual sexist is as unrelated to reality as the image of him as a sexual harasser.

And yet, because of a three-minute improvised toast in (as Waddell and Higgins have taken great pains to tell us) a half-listening room, he has been made into a symbol of something that, his record shows, he is actually the very opposite of. The reason for this was a sloppily composed tweet by a journalist who was in an important sense (as a member of the WFSJ board) his host, and who herself said she wasn't listening carefully (only realizing when she thought he said something offensive that he was also notable enough to make for a sensational news story), published three hours after his words were spoken. Subsequent research exonerates him of all charges of actually harboring sexist views, and reveals only that he may be a bit too optimistic (for some tastes) about the current state of gender equality in the sciences.

Whatever you may think about what he is said to have said, if you think Tim Hunt is a casual sexist and therefore got what he deserved, you're wrong. And you're wrong in exactly the same sense that you'd be wrong if he really was a casual sexist but was being presented in the science press as a sexual harasser like Geoff Marcy. However wrong what he stands accused of may be, what is being said about him is just plain false.

How can such a grave injustice be done? A recent piece in Nature, which, unfortunately, also propagates the myth of Tim Hunt as a "sexist", provides an explanation. “People who don’t have power really can have their voices heard,” it quotes Northeastern communications researcher Brooke Foucault Welles as saying. “They can reframe the story.”

That is, what we now call "the power of social media" is really the power to use any event and any personality as a focus point around which to "reframe" a narrative that, one believes, isn't getting enough attention. If you want to bring attention to sexism in science, for example, just accuse a scientist of being a sexist, and then celebrate the "support" that his "victims" are getting every time he is called a "misogynist" (see David Calquhoun's tweets) or, my personal favorite, a "rat fucking bastard". Also make sure to emphasize the abusive trolls that predictably attack your accusations with vitriol, while ignoring principled defenses that try to assess the evidence.

In fact, what you do is to construe any defense as illegitimate, by equating the claim that the accused isn't actually a sexist with an expression of sexism itself. It's absurd, of course. This not only harms the reputation of the accused, who in this case happens to be a great supporter of women in science, it is an affront to all the real women that have in fact been victimized by manifest bastards who actually hate women. The ability of these women to tell their stories is significantly diminished by the sloppy journalism and slapdash activism that (re)framed Tim Hunt as a "sexist scientist".